In the waiting room of an office suite on the 22nd floor of the Hotel Chancellor, in Midtown Manhattan, a man lies dead. Not far from his bludgeoned skull, there is a blood-stained fireplace poker. So far, so typical: For an American detective story of this period, that’s a fairly routine gambit. Yet there are some outré features that attach both to the murder room and to the murdered man. When amateur sleuth and man-about-town Ellery Queen saunters into that chamber, what greets him is a tableau of antic inversion. A floor rug has been turned upside-down; framed pictures and a clock have been made to face the wall on which they hang; each lamp has been rotated so that it stands on its shade rather than its base. The inversion scheme extends to the body of the victim. Every article of his clothing—shirt, collar, trousers, jacket, even his shoes—has been removed and then put on backward. Weirder still, someone has trussed the man with a pair of African spears that had been part of the room’s décor. The spears run up the victim’s trouser legs and up the front of his suit jacket (and thus up the back of his body), so that the tip of each spear pokes out of one of his jacket lapels. In the febrile atmosphere of that room at that moment, the spear-tips loom next to the dead man’s head like a set of devil’s horns.
Amid the many strange signs that make up this topsy-turvy scene, one piece of information is missing. Nothing on the person of the victim indicates who he is, and no one involved in the case—in particular, no one in the Kirk household, whose members live and work in the hotel suite—seems able to identify the man. The household includes the wealthy young publisher Donald Kirk, along with his father, his sister, and his secretary. Also residing in the hotel are a woman who writes novels about China (she’s clearly modeled on Pearl S. Buck) and a sultry adventuress, both of whom have designs on the younger Kirk. There’s intrigue aplenty among those characters, and there are plenty of intriguing leads for Ellery and his father, Inspector Richard Queen of the NYPD, to pursue. The leftover peels of a tangerine (also known as a Chinese orange), a missing set of Hebrew books, a collector’s hunt for a rare old stamp, and intimations of blackmail give the Queens ample reason to keep asking questions. Yet, as long as the victim’s identity remains a cipher, one question overshadows all others: Why would anyone want to murder a man whom nobody knows?
That core puzzle—together with the puzzle of why the killer arranged the corpse and its surroundings in such a preposterous fashion—pivots around a trick that would be more suitable to a short story. It’s a brilliant trick, to be sure. But it does not, in this case, support a full-bodied novel. Most problematically, the tendrils of intrigue that wind around that main problem are ancillary rather than subsidiary to it; they amount to little more than a layer of padding. If almost anyone else had written Chinese Orange, it would stand as a fine example of classic detective plotting. But within the canon of early Queen works (a canon that features such masterpieces as The Egyptian Cross Mystery and The Tragedy of Y), it qualifies as only a modest achievement.